India’s eastern states will start testing migrant workers who have returned from other parts of the country for the coronavirus disease regardless of whether they have symptoms, officials in five states told

While Bihar plans to collect random samples of asymptomatic migrant workers returning from anywhere in India, West Bengal said it will test those coming from Maharashtra, Gujarat and Delhi. These three states are reporting higher number of Covid-19 cases.

Assam will test migrants returning from areas marked as red zones by the Union health ministry, as will Jharkhand. According to the Union health ministry, there are 130 red zones across India, with the maximum number in Uttar Pradesh, followed by Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Delhi.

So far, India’s testing has largely been restricted to symptomatic individuals – apart from close contacts of laboratory-confirmed patients. But with lakhs of migrant workers from poorer eastern India, who were stranded away from home during the lockdown, beginning to return to their native states after the Centre lifted restrictions on their movement on April 29, concerns are rising over a possible spread of infection.

Since thermal screening cannot detect asymptomatic cases, eastern states have decided to deploy the diagnostic RT-PCR or reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction test to help detect infections among returning migrants.

Bihar to start with those above 60

Sanjay Kumar, who heads Bihar’s health and family welfare department, said the “course correction” was necessary as the state had found next to zero incoming migrants so far exhibiting classical symptoms of Covid-19. “Samples will be picked up at random from specific high-risk groups,” said Kumar.

Everyone coming in from outside the state will be kept in institutional quarantine. Each block would have its own facility, said Kumar. Among the first group from which random samples would be collected are those who had come from red zones and were above 60 years of age, he added.

Bihar has reported 556 cases and five Covid-19-related deaths, as of May 8.

Assam to test those from red zones

Assam, too, will house everyone coming in from red zones in institutional quarantine starting Wednesday. This is a departure from the protocol announced in the state earlier, according to which only symptomatic people were to be kept in institutional quarantine.

“We found someone positive yesterday who was asymptomatic,” said the state’s health minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. “From now all persons returning from red zones in other parts of the country will be put in compulsory facility quarantine for at least three days till results of their swab tests are available.”

So far, Assam has reported 49 confirmed cases of the coronavirus disease. One person has died.

West Bengal shortlists three states

Bengal, for its part, will only keep individuals coming in from Maharashtra, Gujarat and Delhi in facility quarantine and subject them to compulsory tests, said Ajoy Chakraborty, the state’s director of health services.

“For others, we will screen them on the basis of their symptoms and advise them home quarantine,” he said. “We will keep their addresses in a centralised software and social health volunteers will routinely keep a tab on them”.

West Bengal has reported 1,456 cases so far. Of them, 151 have died.

Court intervenes in Odisha

The Odisha High Court on Tuesday asked the state government to ensure that all incoming migrants were tested for coronavirus. Only if they tested negative should they be allowed to travel, the court said.

Ajit Kumar Mohanty, special secretary in the state public health department, said the government welcomed the court’s order. However, it was yet to decide how to implement it.

Unlike its other eastern contemporaries, Odisha had no immediate plans to test everyone irrespective of symptoms, even those coming from high-risk zones, said Mohanty. “It is not possible as we have received around 28,000 people from just Surat.”

The state, though, like Bihar, is putting up all incoming migrants in rural areas in government quarantine facilities, irrespective of symptoms. So far, 219 people who have tested positive for Covid-19 in the state and two have died.

Mohanty said the state government was planning to initiate testing for migrants even before the court order came. “There was already a consensus that anyone coming in from red zone would have to get a test done,” he said. “That is why two trains scheduled to come in to the state from Surat were cancelled – and then the high court order followed.”